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Domestic policy in the Gorbachev era was conducted primarily under three programs, whose names became household words: perestroika (rebuilding--see Glossary), glasnost (public voicing--see Glossary), and demokratizatsiya (democratization--see Glossary). The first of these was applied primarily to the economy, but it was meant to refer to society in general. Over the course of Soviet rule, society in the Soviet Union had grown more urbanized, better educated, and more complex. Old methods of exhortation and coercion were inappropriate, yet Brezhnev's government had denied change rather than mastered it. Despite Andropov's efforts to reintroduce some measure of discipline, the communist superpower remained stagnant. Once Gorbachev began to call for bolder reforms, the "acceleration" gave way to perestroika .

Throughout the early years of his rule, Gorbachev spoke of perestroika , but only in early 1987 did the slogan become a full-scale campaign and yield practical results. At that time, measures were adopted on the formation of cooperatives and joint ventures (see The Perestroika Program, ch. 6). At a plenum of the CPSU Central Committee in January 1987, Gorbachev explicitly applied the label to his program to devolve economic and political control. In economics, perestroika meant greater leeway in decision making for plant managers, allowance for a certain degree of individual initiative and the chance to make a profit.

In January 1988, the new Law on State Enterprises went into effect, allowing enterprises to set many of their own prices and wages. Results were disappointing, however, because workers demanded steep wage increases. As the government printed more money, products fetched higher prices outside the official economy. Thus, goods usually sold in state stores at fixed prices quickly disappeared as speculators snatched them up or producers ceased making deliveries. By September 1988, many staple products could not be found even in Moscow. During 1988-89 Gorbachev also issued orders to the oblast party committees to cease interfering in the economy, and he cut the staffs of state committees and ministries involved in the economy in order to prevent them from further tampering with it. Without the state and the party to hold it together and guide it, the economy went into free-fall (see Unforeseen Results of Reform, ch. 6).

In the summer of 1990, Yeltsin, who had been elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Republic in May, backed a radical economic reform plan that would have spelled the end of many special interests within the party. Gorbachev in turn presented a much less extreme "Presidential Plan," which the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union passed. Yeltsin threatened that the Russian Republic would proceed with the initial radical plan, but shortly thereafter he suspended it.

In January 1991, Gorbachev replaced Prime Minister Nikolay Ryzhkov, who had become identified with the regime's economic failures, with Valentin Pavlov, an opponent of radical reform. Pavlov immediately created a mass panic by withdrawing large-denomination banknotes from circulation and limiting the public's ability to convert them to lower-denomination notes. The move, designed to reduce the vast sums of money circulating and to punish "black marketeers" hoarding large banknotes, only intensified the people's mistrust of the Soviet government. The economy continued to spiral downward, and Gorbachev and Shevardnadze had to ask the West for financial aid in order to stave off collapse. Gorbachev's retreat marked the last time economic reform dominated the agenda of a Soviet government.

Data as of July 1996